In July, What the Fork reported on new chefs for Sea Salt, the Berkeley seafood place. Longtime chef Anthony Paone had already stepped down, and it became clear that his replacement, Scott Gehring, was sort of an interim guy. You got the feeling the ongoing demands of seven-day service was a recipe for burnout for a single chef. Sure enough, Sea Salt's parent company — K2 Restaurant Group — installed two chefs. Chris Keeley took on lunch and brunch, while Thomas Weibull, who'd cheffed across the bay at Plouf, would anchor the dinner shift.
I stopped by for dinner last week, eager to see if Weibull had made changes to the menu. Turns out he hadn't (significant, direction-shifting ones, anyway). And while the three dishes I tried were pretty good, I walked away wondering if anyone was in charge of the dining room that night.
Sea Salt was a quarter full, max. I sat at the counter, just a few feet from Weibull and a couple of cooks on the open line.
Even as a single diner seated where I couldn't help but be in the peripheral vision of servers and cooks, I felt neglected. My fork wasn't replaced till a few minutes after my entrée arrived, and only after I asked for one. None of the cooks acknowledged me, no nod, no smile — hell, not even a smirk. Not that anyone had to, strictly, but still: I felt like they were on the line because they had to be — needed the paycheck — not because anyone appreciated that a customer had taken a seat at an otherwise deserted counter. A few times I felt helpless, not sure where my server was, and sort of invisible.
Not only that, but the cooks joked around, talking random stuff and teasing each other, right under the chef's nose — he even joked with them. Again, it didn't necessarily taint the quality of their work, but it seemed sloppy, disrespectful to diners, even. Right about the time the chef pulled out his phone and began texting from the line, I started to fear I was keeping him from hanging out with his buds.
Not that the food wasn't good: Dungeness crab cakes came with a nicely funky daikon-kimchi salad ($13), and a beautifully seared and absolutely fresh square of Pacific cod, washed by a soy- and mirin-laced broth, with young edamame and pieces of king oyster mushroom ($22). And a plate of squid ($13) was nicely grilled — firm, creamy-centered — thought the gigante beans underneath were a bit mushy, and an almond pesto tasted sweet as Jif.
I'll be back to see how things shape up as Weibull asserts himself, if he does. And I'm eager to see how things look at brunch, from the customer side of the counter.
Whole Paycheck Goes Well
From the day it opened in 2007, Whole Foods' Oakland store has done a bit of struggling to find itself. Remember the burger bar? Offerings of Everett & Jones barbecue?
This week, the Oakland store began a new chapter of self-seeking with the launch of the Whole Food Market Wellness Club. It's said to be one of only three in the megasprawling chain, and the first on the West Coast, a sort of Jenny Craig support group meets ongoing supper club meets the guy at your gym who you can ask about nutrition. From the official pre-opening press release: "The Wellness Club program offers a variety of educational classes in a supportive setting to help individuals make more informed decisions about living a healthier lifestyle."
The former coffee bar at the front of the store has been remade into Wellness Club HQ (there's still a coffee bar in the store, but it's moved — somewhere). As for Monday's launch, it was scheduled to have been, well — bready. Again, from the press release: "Wellness Club leadership will host a bread-breaking ceremony ... which will involve cutting a healthy, sprouted grain baguette." No fear of carbs there, perhaps since the store's pastry department is only feet away from the Wellness Center.
Club membership costs about as much as most gyms: a $195 "processing fee" up front, and $45 in monthly dues. You'll get a lifestyle and diet evaluation ("Can I show you something in the Wellness aisle that I think your body needs?"), so-called skill-building classes (cooking, store tours, and something called "Lunch Crunch"), coaching and tips, fitness and yoga classes, discounts on future Wellness Supper Clubs, a 10 percent discount on "healthier" food choices in the Oakland store, plus discounts at allied businesses (not sure what — or where — those are).
Skill-building classes are free this week, so you can check them out before committing. Up to you whether or not you show up wearing a unitard and leg warmers — oh, and toting your Whole Foods shopping bag, of course.